Prolific playwright Neil Simon dead at 91

Playwright Neil Simon, known for his Tony Award-winning works The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers, has died at age 91.

Most popular works included Tony Award-winning The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers

Playwright Neil Simon has died at the age of 91. (Gary Stuart/The Associated Press)

Playwright Neil Simon, a master of comedy whose laugh-filled hits such as The Odd CoupleBarefoot in the Park and his Brighton Beach trilogy dominated Broadway for decades, has died. He was 91.

Simon died early Sunday of complications from pneumonia surrounded by family at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said Bill Evans, his longtime friend and spokesperson for the Shubert Organization, which produces plays and owns many theatres.

In the second half of the 20th century, Simon was the American theatre's most successful and prolific playwrights, often chronicling middle-class issues and fears.

Starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961 and continuing into the next century, he rarely stopped working on a new play or musical. His list of credits is staggering.

The theatre world mourned his death, with actor Josh Gad calling Simon "one of the primary influences on my life and career." Playwright Kristoffer Diaz said simply: "This hurts."

Simon's stage successes included The Prisoner of Second AvenueLast of the Red Hot LoversThe Sunshine Boys, Plaza Suite, Chapter Two, Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises, but there were other plays and musicals, too, more than 30 in all. Many of his plays were adapted into movies and one, The Odd Couple, even became a popular television series.

For seven months in 1967, he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway: Barefoot in the Park; The Odd Couple; Sweet Charity; and The Star-Spangled Girl.

One of America's most beloved writers

Even before he launched his theatre career, he made history as one of the famed stable of writers for comedian Sid Caesar that also included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

Simon was the recipient of four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center honours (1995), four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honour and, in 1983, he even had a Broadway theatre named after him when the Alvin was rechristened the Neil Simon Theatre.

There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it- Neil Simon in a 1997 Washington Post interview

In 2006, he won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which honours work that draws from the American experience. The previous year had seen a popular revival of The Odd Couple, reuniting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick after their enormous success in The Producers several years earlier.

In a 1997 interview with The Washington Post, Simon reflected on his success. "I know that I have reached the pinnacle of rewards. There's no more money anyone can pay me that I need. There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it," he said.

Simon had a rare stumble in the fall of 2009, however, when a Broadway revival of his Brighton Beach Memoirs closed abruptly after only nine performances because of poor ticket sales. It was to have run in repertory with Simon's Broadway Bound, which was also cancelled.

The bespectacled, mild-looking Simon (described in a New York Times magazine profile as looking like an accountant or librarian who dressed "just this side of drab") was a relentless writer — and re-writer.

"I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft," Simon wrote in the introduction to one of the many anthologies of his plays.

In this photo taken July 2, 1977, Simon, right, poses for a photo on the set of The Cheap Detective with Dom DeLuise. (The Associated Press)

He was a meticulous jokesmith, peppering his plays, especially the early ones, with comic one-liners and humorous situations that critics said sometimes came at the expense of character and believability. No matter. For much of his career, audiences embraced his work, which often focused on middle-class, urban life. Many of the plots drew on his personal experiences.

"I don't write social and political plays, because I've always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world," he told The Paris Review in 1992.

Simon received his first Tony Award in 1965 as best author — a category now discontinued — for The Odd Couple, although the comedy lost the best-play prize to Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses. He won a best-play Tony 20 years later for Biloxi Blues. In 1991, Lost in Yonkers received both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. And there was a special achievement Tony, too, in 1975.

Simon's own life figured most prominently in what became known as his Brighton Beach trilogy — Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound — which many consider his finest works. In them, Simon's alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, makes his way from childhood to the U.S. Army to finally, on the verge of adulthood, a budding career as a writer.

Early life and upbringing

Simon was born Marvin Neil Simon in New York and was raised in the Bronx and Washington Heights. He was a Depression-era child and his father, Irving, was a garment-industry salesman. He was raised mostly by his strong-willed mother, Mamie, and mentored by his older brother, Danny, who nicknamed his younger sibling Doc.

Simon attended New York University and the University of Colorado. After serving in the military in 1945-46, he began writing with his brother for radio in 1948 and then, for television, a period in their lives chronicled in Simon's 1993 play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Simon, who was 37 in this 1964 photo, is seen in front of his typewriter in New York. (Dan Grossi/The Associated Press)

The brothers wrote for such classic 1950s television series as Your Show of Shows, 90 minutes of live, original comedy starring Caesar and Imogene Coca, and later for The Phil Silvers Show, in which the popular comedian portrayed the conniving Army Sgt. Ernie Bilko.

Yet Simon grew dissatisfied with television writing and the network restrictions that accompanied it. Out of his frustration came Come Blow Your Horn, which starred Hal March and Warren Berlinger as two brothers (not unlike Danny and Neil Simon) trying to figure out what to do with their lives. The comedy ran for more than a year on Broadway. An audience member is said to have died on opening night.

Critical and commercial achievements

But it was his second play, Barefoot in the Park, that really put Simon on the map. Critically well-received, the 1963 comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, concerned the tribulations of a pair of newlyweds, played by Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford.

Simon cemented that success two years later with The Odd Couple, a comedy about bickering roommates: Oscar, a gruff, slovenly sportswriter, and Felix, a neat, fussy photographer. Walter Matthau, as Oscar, and Art Carney, as Felix, starred on Broadway, with Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the roles in a successful movie version. It was eventually turned into several TV series and Broadway plays.

Besides Sweet Charity (1966), which starred Gwen Verdon as a goodhearted dance-hall hostess, and Promises, Promises (1968), based on Billy Wilder's film The Apartment, Simon wrote the books for several other musicals.

In this Nov. 23, 1981, file photo playwright Neil Simon, at left, and actor James Coco, at right, are seen in New York during the announcement of the Broadway-bound musical comedy written by Simon called Little Me. (The Associated Press)

Many of his plays were turned into films as well; Simon often wrote screenplays for the movie versions. He also wrote original screenplays, the best known being The Goodbye Girl, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a struggling actor, and The Heartbreak Kid, which featured Charles Grodin as a recently married man, lusting to drop his new wife for a blonde goddess played by Cybill Shepherd.

Not everything was a success

In his later years, Simon had more difficulty on Broadway. After the success of Lost in Yonkers, the playwright had a string of financially unsuccessful plays including Jake's Women, Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Proposals. Simon even went off-Broadway with London Suite in 1995 but it didn't run long either.

The Dinner Party, a comedy set in Paris about husbands and ex-wives, was a modest hit in 2000, primarily because of the box-office strength of its two stars, Henry Winkler and John Ritter. A hit revival of Promises, Promises  in 2010 starred Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes.

I suspect I shall keep on writing in a vain search for that perfect play.- Neil Simon once said about his voluminous body of work

Perhaps Simon's most infamous production was the critically panned Rose's Dilemma, which opened at off-Broadway's non-profit Manhattan Theatre Club in December 2003. Its star, Mary Tyler Moore, walked out of the show during preview performances after receiving a note from the playwright criticizing her performance. She was replaced by her understudy.

Simon wrote two memoirs, Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999). They were combined into Neil Simon's Memoirs.

Simon was married five times, twice to the same woman. His first wife, Joan Baim, died of cancer in 1973, after 20 years of marriage. They had two daughters, Ellen and Nancy, who survive him. Simon dealt with her death in Chapter Two (1977), telling the story of a widower who starts anew.

Simon poses with his wife in 2008 Elaine Joyce, left, and actress-producer Lucie Arnaz, right, in New York. (Seth Wenig/The Associated Press)

The playwright then married actress Marsha Mason, who had appeared in his stage comedy The Good Doctor and who went on to star in several films written by Simon including The Goodbye Girl, The Cheap Detective, Chapter Two, Only When I Laugh and Max Dugan Returns. They were divorced in 1982.

The playwright was married to his third wife, Diane Lander, twice — once in 1987-1988 and again in 1990-1998. Simon adopted Lander's daughter, Bryn, from a previous marriage. Simon married his fourth wife, actress Elaine Joyce, in 1999. He is also survived by three grandchildren and one great-grandson.

"I suspect I shall keep on writing in a vain search for that perfect play. I hope I will keep my equilibrium and sense of humour when I'm told I haven't achieved it," Simon once said about his voluminous output of work. "At any rate, the trip has been wonderful. As George and Ira Gershwin said, 'They Can't Take That Away From Me.'"